Now I know what you must be thinking.
This story is getting downright depressing!
Yes! It reminds me of something my Master Armsmaker told me when I was a young apprentice. “Life sucks, then you die.”
I know he wasn’t a very optimistic fellow but he could work steel and walnut to create firearms that were works of art. Senators, wealthy businessmen, and foreign dignitaries often commissioned him to create a weapon befitting their status. I feel lucky that I studied under such a master.
So what happened in the mine?
Since you are hanging on the edge of your seat to know what’s next; fine I’ll tell you.
We approached a small granite building that could have been a double of our prison in miniature. The walls were thick, the windows small and the doors made from heavy steel. As we approached prisoners handed us helmets. Heavy thick brain buckets with a leather strap to buckle underneath ones chin. The front of the helmet had an oil lantern mounted.
The prisoners passed an open flame and ignited the head lamps. I held mine up to the flame but nothing happened.
“Twist the feed knob.” An annoyed prisoner instructed.
“Oh right.” I did and the lamp shot out a flame about the length of a little finger.
After lighting the lamps the prisoners put their helmets on. I followed suit. The last wearer of mine must have been a plump sweaty fellow, but I hadn’t seen a prisoner who wasn’t more bones that flesh.
Fellow prisoners handed us tools. Some men held picks, shovels, sledgehammers and the like; I ended up holding a large steel bar. I had no idea what I was supposed to do with it.
We entered the tunnel and it took my eyes a few moments to adjust to the gloom. Mine carts and lifts were pulled up via steel cables attached to pulleys, and mule teams.
We rode a rickety lift hundreds of man heights down into the bowels of the earth. It began to get hotter as we sank lower. The sound of steel ringing on steel filled my ears.
“How far down does this go? Straight to the hells?”
Forty Six cleared his throat, “Feels like it.”
Eventually the lift stopped, the rusty gate pulled up, allowing us to enter the mine. Mines are not nice places. They are worse when a filthy little scab of a man is wearing your boots. We walked into the darkness; our flickering head lamps seemed feeble against the ever present dark.
I’m not sure how far we walked but it was a very long time. My feet hurt as soon as my skin touched the stone and earth. Dust motes danced through the air and into our lungs and eyes. I began coughing as soon as I was forced to breathe the rock powder.
Eventually we arrived at the work site. The prisoners began moving about their tasks they knew exactly what they were doing. Then I noticed we weren’t surrounded by any task masters.
“Where are the bosses?”
He shrugged, “Yer lookin’ at one.”
“You? But you’re a prisoner.”
He smiled that toothy grin, his bad eye rolled around in its socket. “If we don’t fill ten carts full. We don’t get full rations.”
If we didn’t work hard we didn’t eat. If we didn’t eat we would get sick and be unable to fill the carts. If we couldn’t fill the carts we’d eat less, until we starved.
“They don’t have executioners in Vassar prison. The deaths from accidents and starvation be enough to keep the numbers in check.”
I felt sick. This was the nation I loved. How could we be so cruel and heartless? Yes the men in these mines had done horrible things, but they were men not animals. I walked forward in a fog stewing on Velderland’s treatment of her prisoners.
We began working. I figured out what the heavy steel bar was for. Being the newest prisoner in the group I had the unenviable job of holding and turning the steel while others pounded on it with sledgehammers.
My hands began shaking from the punishing vibrations after the first minute; I had to do this for hours. If one of the hammers missed my hands and head were right in the path of fast moving steel. Eventually we finished all the holes and a case of explosives was sent down via a mine cart.
Thirty Three tamped the sticks of tightly wrapped black powder into each hole and combined the fuses. For a rat faced little thief he seemed to know what he was doing. We moved far down the tunnel before the fuse was lit.
We crouched in a side tunnel out of the path of destruction waiting for the explosion. I covered my ears and opened my mouth as instructed.
“Any second now!” Forty Six yelled so we could hear over our plugged ears.
Was the ceiling going to collapse when the black powder exploded? Would we be choked with dust and smoke? I hated waiting, why didn’t it explode already?
I bit my tongue I wanted to tell him he said that already but figured making him angry would be bad for my longevity. We crouched in the side tunnel for what seemed like entirely too long.
“Filthy mother of a whore!” the big man cursed, “Thirty Three, it aint gone off yet did you foul it up?”
“No, everything was normal! I swear it!” He looked at me beads of sweat dripping off his face. “It was Two Ten’s fault! He sabotaged it somehow!”
“Me? Now why would I do that?”
“You want me to fail for stealin’ yer boots!” He held his fuse cutters up like a dagger.
Forty Six grabbed his wrist. “Cut it out! Go an check the fuses!”
“I’m not going out there! Make Two Ten do it!”
“Me? I wouldn’t even know what to look for!”
We played a quick game of Rock, Parchment, and Knife.
I was told to look for where the fuse had gone out. If it was still long I could relight it with my helmet lamp. If not we would have to restring the fuse, delaying our progress even more. My stomach rumbled with the thought of not “earning” a meal.
Stumbling down the tunnel I realized my feet were bloody. If I survived I would cut up my apron to make leather foot wrappings, they’d be better than nothing.
I followed the fuse; it left little black scorch marks. I was getting uncomfortably close to the black powder bombs. My life could be snuffed out at any moment a piece of flying rock propelled by the explosion.
I found the red glowing fuse, less than a hundred spans from the blast site. I was about to call for a new one when it sparked and ignited. It took me a brief moment to realize it was burning again. It must have found a section of fuse without enough powder imbued into the rope.
Turning around as fast as I could, I ran away from certain death. I screamed like a little girl but I wasn’t concerned with sounding manly, I needed speed! Yelling seemed to help spur my weary legs and feet on faster. Something tore my toes, but I didn’t have time to feel pain.
I rounded the corner of the tunnel and leapt landing in a heap on top of the prisoners.
“What in the…” Was all Thirty Three managed to say when a loud thump shook the world.
I felt the explosion more than heard it. It pressed against my chest and was gone. Moments later a rolling cloud tasting of dirt, rock, and burnt black powder enveloped us. Breathing became difficult. I don’t know how these men could do this day in and day out. I imagined many of those who died gave up, laid down and let their blackened lungs take them.
We spent the next several hours filling mine carts with rubble. I always knew black powder was powerful, but never had I been involved in using it to chip away at the inside of a mountain. Some of our crew laid new tracks for the carts, others shored up the roof with timbers. They knew what they were doing, the sooner we had the rubble cleared out and the quota of cars filled the sooner we could get out of the mine.
Finally the lift gate opened and a sliver of sunlight poured in from the exit. Outside I could breathe again! I coughed and spat in a futile attempt to clear the filth out of my throat and lungs. The sun was going down; in a few minutes it would be gone. We had spent the greater part of the day inside the belly of stone.
We made it back into our cell and I promptly fell asleep amid the stench, I didn’t care.
Rough hands woke me up a bit later and a plate of food was shoved at me. I devoured it, hardly tasting it. Once it was gone I slept again. I dreamt of flying again, hunting animals ten times as heavy as I. The raw meat tasted good. But I dreamt of sadness.
I awoke longing to fly again.
“Hey lookie who decided to come back to life.” Forty Six said with a toothy grin.
“Hey eat this.” He said as he handed me a crusty roll.
“Breakfast?” I asked.
“Yep. Today’s our day off. We get showers, clothes, and time in the yard.”
My blood ran cold. I couldn’t imagine what showering with this troop of men would be like, but it couldn’t be pleasant.
Forty Six must have seen the horror on my face. “Ha! Don’t worry Two Ten, aint no big deal.”
“That’s easy for you to say, you’re the biggest guy in this hole. Nobody would try and do anything to you.”
“Get up, guards are comin’.”
I learned two things about the Vassar prison showers that day, the water is cold, and wet towels should be considered deadly weapons.
After dressing in “new” clothes, we went out to the yard. It was a walled in area that looked like at one time it might have had something resembling grass growing in it at one time.
We played a game of Wall to Wall. The object of the game was to reach the opposing team’s wall without getting killed. If you touched the wall with the ball your team got three points, if you threw it into the wall past a shallow trench in the field you scored one point.
The game was fast and furious; we played against the cell across the way from us, Crew Four. They had eight men and I could tell both cells held grudges from previous matches. I tried to avoid contact with the scuffed round leather ball as much as possible, but I was taken down roughly a couple of times.
While lying on the ground a particularly scrappy prisoner jabbed me in the stomach, knocking the breath from my chest. I struggled to rise and was called foul names by my team.
On our last attempt to score Thirty Three tossed the ball to me. I didn’t know if he just wanted to watch as the other team pummeled me or he actually was trying to win. I ran despite my sore feet and leapt touching the wall with the ball, putting us up by two points.
Crew Four had one last chance to score and win. Forty Six put the ball carrier on the ground knocking the ball loose, winning the game for Crew Three. As winners of the game, we got cheese and not quite stale bread.
After eating we relaxed in our cell. After a while the other prisoners wanted to hear another story. I told them of my failed attempt to fly off the top of the Vaughnson family barn. They laughed and begged for more.
“Well, I don’t know. Let me think.”
Three oh Eight raised his hand. “Hey tell us ‘bout that girl magus Carlyin.”
“Carolyn. Well she’s something else.”
“I hear them women magus don’t wear nothin’ under them purple robes.” Forty Six stated.
“Actually they do.”
Thirty Three sneered, “An how’d you know that?”
I told them about lying next to her under Strongbeak’s wing, and accidentally finding my way through her robes.
There were murmurs of disbelief at the story. But I could tell they enjoyed it, and if it kept them from beating me senseless it was worth it.
From down the corridor we heard other prisoners whistling and hollering.
Thirty Three shook his head, “Two Ten, yer a bad liar. Yer stories of flyin’ Raptors an cavortin’ with magic women, bunch o’ poppycock!”
The whistles and howls grew louder.
“What I say is the truth. Why would I lie about those things?”
A prisoner in the next block over yelled, “Hey girlie want a real man?”
They looked at each other for a brief moment then ran to the door to get a peek of the woman, a truly rare creature in the Black Ward. Thirty Three shoved me back and I couldn’t see out the door.
The guards called for silence rapping the bars with their clubs. Eventually the prisoners grew quiet.
A feminine voice asked, “Is prisoner Two Ten in there?”
I shoved my way forward, my hands gripped the bars and our eyes met. She seemed to have come from a heavenly vision, clean and beautiful in her purple robes.
She looked me up and down, her eyes revealing a hint of pain and sadness.
“Greetings Magus Carolyn.” I managed once I could take a breath.
She spoke to a guard, “That’s him. When can you have him released?”
“Straight away Magus.”
“Thank you, Overmaster Perry.”
I was getting out of this hellish place. How I knew not, but I was going to be with Carolyn so it didn’t matter.
She left under escort, even though I knew she had enough power she could take care of any over eager prisoner.
Forty Six looked down at me with sad eyes. “Well Two Ten, good luck on the outside. Thanks for the stories.”
Thirty Three looked stunned, “You… you wasn’t lyin’ this whole time? I don’t believe it.”
The guards opened the door and I slipped out, soon to be a free man.
Forty Six grabbed my sleeve, “Two Ten, promise yer gonna remember us.”
“I will.” I said as the guards escorted me away.